Small Group Bible Studies

Who is responsible for your spiritual growth? Who is responsible for feeding you spiritually? Is it your pastor, or are you responsible for yourself before God? Learn how to “fix your own food” in this presentation about Small Group Bible Studies.

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We know that when Paul traveled to visit the churches, people came from far and wide to hear him at great personal effort. It was a 4 mph world and that was going fast. So it took a lot of people a lot of time to get to where he was. But, when we look at the New Testament history, we see that those times were few and far between. We know, too, that he told the church not to forsake the assembling of themselves together. And they were a very small, scattered group. It was hard for them to get together. So what did they do? Well, other scriptures show us that they met in people’s homes, and I think it’s safe to say, quite often in small groups.

We’ve been doing small groups here in Albuquerque since – I think it was – July of 2004. I’m going to talk about the benefits and the pitfalls of small group Bible study a bit later, but for now I’m going to discuss a bit about how to sustain small group worship week in and week out.

The easiest part of it is the material. And yet, a lot of us really aren’t familiar with how to come up with material for a small group study. I think that’s a good place to start. It’s very hard to find people who can speak to a group week in and week out and hold the group’s interest. I know I’ve never been able to do it. It’s much easier to study the Bible as a group and to find interest there. Why is that? That’s because everybody can study the Bible well, once you know what to do. And, when we get together to do it, it’s even better, because we help each other do that.

Small Group Bible StudiesSmall Group Bible StudiesWe’ve found four types of studies that work. The first one is what I would call a single-question study. Here are a couple of examples: The disciples of John asked Jesus why His disciples didn’t fast like them or the Pharisees, and He said in response, “You don’t put a patch on an old garment.” So what did He mean by that? How was that an answer to that question? That’s a good topic, isn’t it? Another one would be: Jesus said that He came to seek and to save those who are lost. What did He mean by that? Doesn’t God just call people and then…. Why does He have to be seeking people who are lost? Those are things to talk about.
How would you prepare that kind of a Bible study? Well, there really isn’t any by the group necessarily, although you could, but the facilitator has a question…and we’ve even done that with large groups of people, where we divided the large group into groups of six or eight, and they discussed the issue, and studied it, and had scriptures available, and then each group would delegate somebody to explain what their group came up with. Then we’d have big group discussion about that. That’s one way to do it.

Another kind of study that we have done, especially around the holy days, is a topical study, where we discuss, for example, the meaning of Pentecost. We found about three ways to do that. You can use a study that is already organized. You can use a pre-prepared study and ask the group to add to it ahead of time. We’ve done that. Or, we can just make up our own. That’s a lot of fun – where we make up some questions, and then go home and study them, and then come back together. It’s interesting how everybody comes up with different answers. So we all learn things that we didn’t think about. So we enrich each other in doing that.

Another one is – what we’re doing right now – I’d just call that a reading study – and that’s where we select a passage or a chapter in the Bible – we know ahead of time what we’ll be covering, as it’s agreed on by the group (not imposed on the group by one of the members, but agreed on by the group) – right? When you get agreement, it generally tends to be more interesting to more people, because you’re picking topics that more people in the group want to study. So, we know ahead of time. Then we read about it ahead of time. We read the passage and we have questions ready before hand. We started out doing this, and we asked each person to be responsible for a certain Bible help, like Nave’s, or commentary – something like that – a Bible dictionary. But so many of us have computers now that we have more than enough for that kind of help, so we haven’t so much supported that lately. But it is a good way to do it, because everybody can contribute what their help has to offer about that.

The last one that you can do is sort of a what’s on your mind study. I know that that works. It’s not very highly organized. I was invited to a Bible study at the Feast site one year – some young adults invited me to it – and they all just sat around in this room, and said, “So what should we study?” A number of ideas were put forward and people kind of coalesced around one of those ideas, and that’s what they talked about. I heard a number of biblical principles. I heard a number of scriptures quoted. And I heard a number of personal examples. Everybody was all involved in it and I think everybody gained from that. That’s really scary to some people, but do you know what that is? It’s because some of us have a hard time trusting that when Jesus said, “If two or three are gathered together, I’ll be with you.” It’s a lack of trust in the Holy Spirit to do what Jesus said would happen. At least, that’s what I think it is. Maybe I shouldn’t say that for everybody.

And I know that some people have had terrible experiences with certain personality types that want to derail the main topic and go off onto their tangent and things like that. We’ll talk about that later.

Those are some ways that people can come up with some studies. I’ve talked to people who have been through all of those and who have wound up searching the Internet for Bible study topics.

I was talking to one man who said, “You know, we thought when we started that we wouldn’t be able to get anything from mainstream Christianity – in organized Bible studies – but what we found out is that, more often than not, we agree with them on most things. It’s not that we’re so different. In the basics, we’re Christians.” So I thought that was interesting, too.

Let’s talk next about how a Bible study might be facilitated. We use someone who plays the role of facilitator. He’s not the boss. He doesn’t control everything. His job – or her job – is to facilitate the effective study of the Bible. Yes, we have a cat-of-nine-tails, because we like to joke around about that. But the facilitator gets the “whip” every week. And our facilitator opens by asking somebody to pray. We use a principle – in most cases, we use it – I don’t think we did today, actually – but we go around the circle. That’s a really important principle. The facilitator asks somebody to read – they don’t go first – they ask someone else to read – because their job is to facilitate, not take the lead – and then others are asked to comment on the passage they’ve read. After everyone has had a chance to speak, then the facilitator can add his – or her – part. If a person doesn’t wish to take their turn, as we go around the circle, they can pass. There’s no pressure or judgment about that.

The facilitator, generally, has two responsibilities. That is to keep things moving – and we do take a lot of time out to talk about a related personal issue sometimes – that’s how we get to know each other – but we also try to, at some point, get out the “whip” and keep things moving. Right? And then, the facilitator’s job is to keep the study on task. That kind of goes back to the first thing. We’ve discovered that the scriptures often stimulate thought about our own lives, so sometimes we talk about that. We’ve kind of moved toward every week we start out by telling a blessing we’ve received. So, we’ve already talked about our lives some. And at the end we go around the circle and pray for those who might need help. We, generally, try to keep the study loosely focused on the topic of the study, rather than digressing too much, because that’s what we said we were going to do, and that’s what people’s expectations are, and also because – not so much in our group, but I’ve heard in other groups – there are some few who always turn the study toward their own issue.

So that brings us to the third area that I wanted to talk about today. And that’s the part about how to be a good participant in a group study. Preparation is always a good thing. It’s always a good thing if it’s the kind of study where you know what is going to be talked about ahead of time – to kind of look over the material and get it in mind – to study it, if you can. We tend to get out of things what we put into them. So, if we’re willing to do a little leg-work ahead of time, that enriches our ability to participate.

Participation itself is something to talk about. Some people tend to formulate their ideas more rapidly than others. That’s the good thing about going around the circle. If you have three people ahead of you commenting, you can sit and formulate your ideas better, so you don’t have to be “under the gun” to comment off the cuff. That need to formulate has nothing to do with the quality of a person’s comments. In fact, sometimes if takes a bit longer, better comments are the result. So nobody should have to worry about not being as quick on the trigger as somebody else.

My wife gave a presentation at the Feast one year about introverts and extroverts – well, mainly, it was about introverts – because extroverts get all the attention, right, and are in the majority. One of the things that is known about introverts is that it takes them longer to formulate things. Their brain works in a whole different set of chemicals than an extrovert. But they, generally, tend to have more solid, well-thought-out comments, too. My wife’s an introvert and I’m an extrovert. I just blab it off – have to retract stuff later. She thinks about it and says it – good to go. I’ve watched her and learned from that – not too much, but I’ve learned some.

So that around-the-circle format is really good to make work for everybody in the group. I’ve noticed that there are some people who don’t want to do the around-the-circle thing because they would rather control the whole Bible study and talk about what they want to talk about.

We’re right here at the next thing and that’s personal agenda. Some people always wind up on one topic – their point of fixation – a pet doctrine, personal ailment, beloved child, wrong suffered in the past. I mean, you just name it. If you’re going to be a good participant, just leave the one thing you want to talk about the most at home. And everything will go perfectly well. I’m being a little bit facetious there, because sometimes, you know, it is important to talk about what is on our heart. But, if the same thing is on our heart every week, then that becomes difficult for the group to deal with at some point.

It’s very important to think about personal agendas and to be balanced in what we have to contribute, and to be willing to contribute as we’re able, and to come prepared so that we have something that we can contribute.

Another point that I think is very important is the idea that Stephen – I’m going to use Stephen Covey’s language – he said, “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.” Most of us have that backwards. Understanding somebody else is an afterthought. We’re mainly interested in putting forth what we have to say.

Here’s something to think about. Those who are spiritually immature can’t tolerate difference. That would cause them to shrink back from this type of study. If people are ever going to be unified, we have to be willing to hear what other people believe and examine the differences. How can you ever be together if you aren’t willing to hear the difference in some way?

There are also people – and I think this is spiritual immaturity as well – who feel they have to challenge every idea they don’t agree with. It’s just not true. We’re much more likely to win people over to our point of view or find mutual understanding by just asking questions, seeking clarification, exploring issues, instead of confrontation – much better way to approach people.

I go to a class right now on what’s called Intensive Short-term Dynamic Psychotherapy. What makes it short-term is, instead of waiting for people to be ready to drop their defenses and talk about all the anger and the hurt they’ve suffered, the therapist just tries to kind of penetrate through that to get down to help them right away. The guy that created this approach had one of the sub-headings in his teaching called Head-on Collision. Okay? That’s direct confrontation. Well, another lady has come along and picked up his system, but she doesn’t do head-on collisions. She never makes direct statements to people about what they ought to do. She asks questions and seeks clarification. And she’s much more successful, because she still leaves it in the hands of the people. I will say that the kind of questions she asks are pretty hard to deny, but she is  still much more gentle in her approach. And, if we take that softer approach to other people, instead of always having to confront people….

What happens when you’re confronted by somebody? You feel a need to defend yourself, don’t you? When defense is engaged, there’s no understanding going on. There’s no true communication. It’s all about answering back and putting up the walls, instead of letting them down. So what does the Bible say? Be swift to hear, slow to speak and slow to wrath. Right? Pretty good approach.

When a challenge is presented to somebody, and we haven’t first sought full understanding of their position, our challenge usually misses the mark, because we don’t really know what to challenge. That makes the other person feel a need to defend themselves, and those who are watching, it makes them think that we’re idiots, because we didn’t even take the time to get to know what the person was talking about.

I remember one year at the Feast, there was a speaker speaking, but he opened it up to questions, and this guy practically jumped down his throat. I was talking to the one who issued the severe challenge, and he said, “Oh, we figured out later that we were talking about the same thing.” And I thought, “Well, everybody in the room probably knew that already, except for the one that issued the challenge.” He just kind of went off on the guy.

Arguing. You know, I don’t remember us ever having an argument here. We haven’t, have we, since 2004? If the principles that we’ve covered already are applied, it’s really hard to have an argument. Some people put themselves in opposition to others without realizing it, but, if we come together to understand the Word of God and to consider the views of other people, believing that we might be enriched, instead of torn down by them, and also to express our own views, as well, without being attacked, then things generally go pretty smoothly. Most of us just want to be understood. So, if we do that – if we understand people – we’re meeting their need. They don’t necessarily need agreement. They just want to be understood. It’s alright to listen to other people and not agree with them, as long as we treat them with respect.

The last point I have about being a participant is to trust God. Whenever two or three are gathered in Christ’s name – and there is the trick right there – it’s not in our name or for our agenda, but to come together in unity in Christ. Right? That’s how we are unified, isn’t it? I mean, I’m looking at this group of people, and we come from all different places, all different backgrounds, all different experiences, but we have one big thing in common. And that’s Jesus Christ and the calling that He’s given to us. So, if we can stay on that topic, we’re already unified. That is a promise that He offers us – when two or three are gathered in His name, then He’ll be there with us. It’s a promise.

I would say that in the case where peace and growing together are not happening, then it’s appropriate to talk in a loving way about what’s going on in the group, because there is something that isn’t happening there.

Benefits. What are the benefits of doing it this way? Well, I’ve learned a lot about the Bible – and I’ve studied the Bible since I was seventeen years old. So that’s a pretty long time. But I’ve learned stuff about the Bible from people in my group that I never would have thought of. Everybody has a different view of things.

We talk a lot here about applying it to our lives. And since we’re interactive, we can each talk about that from our own perspective. So we get to verbalize what we think we should be doing. You can’t do that in a sermon so much, can you? I mean, you can do it in your head, but then you forget what he’s talking about, and you get lost, and you have to come back and try to reorient. But here, that’s what it’s made for. It’s made for us to learn how to apply the Bible in our lives. That’s what the whole thing is about.

We also are getting to know each other better. We started this in 2004 – and I’ve worked with this group of people and others since 1995 – and I’ve gotten to know them a lot better since we started doing it this way, instead of just standing up and talking to them and them listening to me – not talking to each other. But it’s much more relational and it helps people be unified in Christ – have unity in the Holy Spirit.

Another thing that I think is just a most excellent benefit is, if a Bible study is not relevant to your life, who is to blame? We all get to decide what it’s going to be about. And we get to decide whether we’re going to comment or not. Is it that way at church when you have a sermon? No, it’s not. I chose this topic today, because I’m interested in it, but if you’re not interested in it, then too bad for you. But when we have a group study, the group gets to decide what it’s about. So the chances go way up that the topic is going to be something that you’re interested in and will be helpful to you, if we do it in a consensus kind of way.

I want to talk about one other thing. I’m almost done. I want to talk about spiritual growth. In 1987 I moved to San Jose, California, and I got a copy of the San Jose Mercury the first Sunday I was there. At that time I saw my first Far Side cartoon. Where have you been? I don’t know how long Far Side had been going by then, but that was the first time I ever saw it. And it was a cartoon of a mother bird and some babies in a nest. The babies had their mouths open, squawking to be fed, and she’s talking on the phone. And she says, “Excuse me, Gladys. You children be quiet. I’ll regurgitate something for you later.” I think a lot of us, having grown up in organized religion, are a lot like those baby birds.

Have you ever heard somebody talk about how upset they were with their minister because he wasn’t feeding them spiritually. We’re like those baby birds, squawking to be fed. Do you think that your pastor is responsible for your spiritual growth and condition? So why would you squawk about him not feeding you? Do you know what Jesus said? He said that His meat – His food – was to do the will of His Father. That’s what spiritual food is. It’s something we’re responsible for. We get fed by reaching out and helping other people – not by sitting and becoming consumers.

When I was four, I told my mom I wanted a peanut butter sandwich. And she said, “Well, I’m busy right now. There’s the refrigerator. There’s peanut butter. Here’s where the knives are. There’s bread. Fix your own. I’ll help you.” So it was quite a chore, but I managed to navigate the refrigerator and the bread, and opening that. I somehow got some peanut butter on the end of that knife, and she kind of guided my hand while smeared it – I wouldn’t say, “spread” – I smeared it on the bread – slapped it on there. That was the best peanut butter sandwich I ever ate in my life. I did it myself.

Can you fix your own food spiritually? Or do you have to be fed by somebody else? Here, in our group, we feed ourselves. We’ve learned how. And it tastes better when you do it yourself. I’m not saying that there is no place for sermons. I do these presentations all the time and people tell me they get a lot out of it sometimes. But there’s also something to be said about taking care of ourselves.

There’s a personality disorder in the DSM for – the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual – it says, Dependent personality disorder is a long-term, chronic condition in which people depend too much on others to meet their emotional and physical needs. And if we add spiritual needs, then it fits. Some of us have become dependent on other people to take care of us spiritually.

We had a talk about this yesterday, didn’t we? About idol worship – organizational religion. I never cease to be amazed at how closely spiritual and emotional health parallel each other. It’s just so close. How did we come to believe somebody else is responsible for our spiritual growth? Well, I don’t know about you, but for me, it didn’t start out that way. I set out to find what I thought was the right way to worship God, and somehow, along the way, I learned at church I should let other people do all my thinking for me and teach me everything I needed to know. But small group study is one way to take back one’s responsibility for one’s own spiritual growth and Bible knowledge. And all of us here…I don’t know if we could ever go back to the other way. It’s just so good.

That’s a bit about small group work. We’ve said all of this before in our various media, but just reorganized our Website and wanted a core presentation to spearhead the topic. So when this is published in May, we’ll have a topic tab on Small Groups, and probably Bible Study – In Home, maybe. And under them, you’ll be able to find all our resources about this topic in one place, including handout PDFs with some of this material in it, and other things that can help you get started with your own home Bible studies. But for now, until May, you can look at the Series page – we have a page for our series – and look up the Church Health series and see the sub-topic Inclusive Small Groups. And a lot of that material is covered there. So that should help in the interim.